The Paperwork Revolution
by Jean Reynolds, Ph.D.
We who teach English are committed to passing on the immense power of language. It is both a great privilege and an immense responsibility. But teaching English doesn’t always feel that way. Some of what we do—especially the long hours we spend grading student papers—can feel tedious and futile. All too often students’ revisions show little improvement, and subsequent assignments demonstrate that our pleadings about spelling, fragments, and comma splices have fallen on deaf ears.
Worse, some students fail to connect with what we’re trying so hard to do for them. (I vividly remember the dread I used to feel when instructors handed back my own corrected essays.)
The uncomfortable truth is that teachers have power over students, no matter how hard we try to be encouraging and helpful. Brooke K. Horvath sums up the fears of many instructors when she warns that students may be “alienated, antagonized, by our thought-heavy marginalia and terminal remarks” (243).
Similarly Gary R. Hafer, author of Embracing Writing: Ways to Teach Reluctant Writers in Any College Course, notes that many students see us as authority figures rather than guides and helpers. “At best,” he writes, “students perceive traditional grading as a subjective judgment of their learning and their person. At worst, they discern it as a weapon used against them”(245).
Many of us try to minimize these dangers by maintaining a positive tone in our oral and written comments to students. Encouragement is the order of the day, as can be seen in the pages of many current English journals, which urge writing instructors to be “charitable and helpful” to student writers (Briggs and Pailliotet 58). But the power issues remain, an elephant in the room as we try to reach across our desks to our students.
Yet power can also be a positive force, as Peter Hawkins explains in his book Supervision in the Helping Professions, Hawkins lists three types of positive power: “legitimate power, invested in the role; coercive and reward power—the power to offer and withhold rewards; and resources power, the power a supervisor may have to offer or withhold resources” (122). How can we exercise this power in ways that will also empower our students?
The Power Archetype
Depth psychology says that revolution always lies waiting in the shadows of power, and a revolution in our work habits is what I’m calling for. Less, I believe, is more—not because I think English teachers are overworked and underpaid (although we assuredly are), or because I think we should demand less of students (I reject that approach). And I am certainly not suggesting that we should stop reading and responding to student essays.
But we need to recognize how disabling our business-as-usual, late-night markups can be: Too often they convey the message that we have no faith in our students’ power to solve their usage, editorial, and organizational problems.
In my long teaching career, I often had students who were befuddled by even the simplest requirements of college writing. (I spent most of my career working with basic writers in a community college in the rural South.) I was often frustrated—and so were my students. But I gradually came to believe that rather than doing their editorial work for them, I had to find ways to empower students to solve their own writing problems.
Our profession needs to find out: a) why some students write poorly, and b) which teaching practices will give them the confidence and skill needed to overcome those difficulties. To do that, we need to emphasize formative assessments that encourage students to make changes and corrections before grades are entered into our record books, not after.
Gary R. Hafer describes an approach to teaching that is all too common (I know I’ve been guilty of it myself)—the type of professor who complains that “students commit the same errors over and over, unaware that his constant grading never communicated what he wanted his students to learn” (215). Finding ways to break that pattern is the goal of this article.
Inner Teacher, Inner Student
My own search for answers began when I read Adolf Guggenbühl-Craig’s Power in the Helping Professions—a book about the contradictory forces that often operate in secret as ministers, teachers, physicians, and social workers strive to fulfill their mission of serving humanity. The author, a Jungian analyst, is intrigued by archetypes—ancient mythic patterns, personified in figures from old stories and traditions, that humans re-enact all their lives.
He explains that all archetypes—including the teacher archetype—are split into two opposing poles. A wise and nurturing teacher lives in our psyches, accompanied by an untutored, free-spirited student on the brink of exciting discoveries. This split archetype enables us to identify with and enjoy our students despite vast differences in background and experience.
When teachers lose touch with their “inner student” (if I may coin a phrase), the inner teacher swells and takes over, leading to resentment and burnout. Worse yet, teachers who identify only with the authoritarian side of the archetype may trigger the opposite pole in their students—heedless irresponsibility.
The likely outcome is teachers and students at war with each other. Happily, the opposite is much more likely to happen as instructors, remembering their own school days, reach out with compassion and encouragement to the students in their classrooms.
But there’s more. Guggenbühl-Craig’s most important insight, I think, is that the same teacher/student archetype is present in our students. If he is correct, then a wise and nurturing teacher lies hidden within the psyches of the students who drive us to despair with their overdue assignments, misplaced commas, and reckless attempts at subject-verb agreement.
Our job, according to Guggenbühl-Craig, is to activate that inner teacher, just as physicians must awaken the inner healer within their patients. “Activate” is the key word, and current research about brain function reinforces Guggenbühl-Craig’s argument. Neuroscience has discovered that the brain is not the static organ we once believed it to be. As psychiatrist Susan C. Vaughan explains, “learning occurs through changes in the strength of connectors between various neurons” (40).
When stimulated, neurons can migrate, connect, and increase at any stage of human life. “The growth of new connections changes learning from a short-term, functional shift in the effectiveness of a synapse to a long-term, structural change in the bunches of the nerve cells, as well in the number of synapses between the two cells” (Vaughan 62).
An Archetype at Work
This scientific information triggered an “Aha!” experience for me late one night while I was visualizing the students who had written the essays piled high on my worktable. Some students, I imagined, were sleeping; others were working late shifts, watching TV, texting, or partying. Whose neurons, I asked myself, were migrating, connecting, increasing? Not theirs, but mine. It was the beginning of my personal revolution.
I recall a story that helped me understand how much potential lies undeveloped within most human brains: Two men were walking down a busy street in Manhattan on a weekday afternoon. One of the men—an ornithologist—suddenly stopped. “Did you hear that?” he asked—and named a rare bird whose song he had just heard.
Amazed, his friend asked how it was possible to hear a bird in the clatter of weekday traffic. “It’s all in what you’re trained to notice,” the ornithologist replied. To prove his point, he dropped a nickel onto the sidewalk: Instantly a hundred people stopped to look for it.
That ornithologist heard the bird song because his brain was constantly running a high-quality mental software program for bird identification. Similarly we English teachers possess sophisticated mental software for writing and editing. Our students—unfortunately—don’t.
I vividly recall what happened the first time I asked my students to make a list of the words like it’s/its and to/too that need careful proofreading: They just looked at me helplessly. At that moment I realized the futility of my red-ink teaching method. In the language of the Twelve-Step recovery movement, I was spending my time enabling, not empowering. I was one of the professors Hafer talks about—complaining about errors without really communicating what I wanted students to learn.
Rethinking Writing Assignments
Gradually my attitude and teaching practices began to change. Empowerment begins, I discovered, when students are challenged by a stimulating writing task. I am convinced that inadequate assignments, rather than carelessness or low skill levels, are a primary reason why students write poorly. Only writers gripped by ideas can produce forceful sentences, tightly organized paragraphs, and hard-hitting essays: There is no other way to write well.
Consider, for example, the meaningless topics that students usually choose for “modes” essays: classifying three types of cars, comparing small towns to cities, explaining the process for washing a car or baking a cake. Look closely at students’ final drafts, and you’ll see that the essays are often elaborate lists of random information heading nowhere.
Yet there are great possibilities for writers hidden within the traditional modes. Classification proved useful to educator John Holt when he wanted to challenge traditional either/or thinking about spanking: In Freedom and Beyond, he demonstrated that parents and teachers can choose from four types of discipline, not just one. I’ve read excellent student essays about everyday processes like putting a child to bed or figuring out what made Grandma’s potato salad better than the Walmart version. A colleague tells me that her students are using the presidential primary debates to write marvelous classification essays.
Empowering through Structure
But even students who are ready to write may have difficulty sorting and organizing their ideas. Here the split archetype of wise teacher/unknowing student becomes more problematical.
Some writing instructors mistakenly believe that good writing is the product of an intuitive process that resists any attempt at definition or explanation. In this style of teaching—perhaps better labeled “non-teaching”— structure is evil: It stifles creativity and transfers ownership of the writing from student to teacher.
The unfortunate result is that students are totally dependent on their instructors. Lacking guidelines, students can’t determine for themselves whether an essay is working or not. And so teachers are compelled to sit alone, night after night, trying to figure out what’s wrong with each paper, how to fix it, and how to convey the bad news without damaging students’ confidence and self-esteem. Somehow the responsibility for good writing has been shifted from our students to us.
One solution is for each teacher to define and describe “good writing” as clearly and precisely as possible (involving students in this process), and to hold students accountable to that standard. (Asking students to analyze and evaluate published articles and essays is a useful introductory activity.)
But first many of us have to shake off our old fears about formulaic writing. My own liberation began during my doctoral defense, when a committee member gently told me that I had written my dissertation backwards, with the concrete applications first and theory last, instead of the other way around.
A one-page template explaining how to organize a dissertation would have saved me the trouble of inventing the highly original but very strange wheel I presented to my committee that afternoon. (They gave me the doctorate anyway.)
The writing guidelines I have worked out for myself (often in response to pleadings from the patient men and women who edit my writing) have proven equally useful for my students: Use an attention-getting strategy to kick off your writing. State your thesis early—no later than the end of the second paragraph—and stick to it. Begin each body paragraph with a topic sentence, and bring each paragraph to closure. Whenever possible, tell a story. Pick out a key word (in this article it’s “power”), and hammer away at it.
Consider recasting any sentence with more than three commas—it’s probably too complicated. Starting sentences with “and” and “but” adds energy to your ideas. Place subjects and verbs close together—early in the sentence is best—so that your ideas are easy to read and understand. Don’t shy away from contractions or split infinitives.
Take risks, bearing in mind the postmodernist assertion that “private” and “public” writing are movable points on a continuum, not mutually exclusive categories. Structure your sentences, paragraphs, and ideas to build to a climax.
Of course no guidelines work one hundred percent of the time: They aren’t supposed to. (I finally gave up trying to put a topic sentence at the beginning of every paragraph of this article.)
I have read stunning Comp I essays that violated my most sacred rule: Put your thesis near the beginning and stick to it. Accountability is about consciousness, not conformity—students making thoughtful choices about organizing and expressing their ideas.
And accountability is about empowerment, not authoritarianism. When students are challenged to take responsibility for the quality of their writing, they begin to develop the mental software needed for success in academic and professional writing.
As Peter Elbow asserts, many writing issues belong to “the realm of responsibility, diligence, and self-management” (369). He tells his students, “If you want to pass this course you simply have to manage yourself and do the things that writers do—one way or another” (369). My students quickly discovered that I expected them to use the writing resources available on our campus, which included software and free tutoring, as well as my e-mail, voice mail, and office hours.
I learned a salutary lesson about students’ hidden capabilities years ago when I taught report writing in a police academy. The cadets—most of them graduates of local high schools—were similar to my college students, with one significant difference: The cadets rarely made spelling errors. Because failing the report-writing unit meant dismissal from the academy, I never had to urge those cadets to use spellcheckers, dictionaries, and grammar checkers.
Accountability in the Classroom
The empowerment process I’m talking about has to begin before essays are handed in, not after. I found that scheduling writing workshops during regular classroom time is the best way to help students take responsibility for their writing.
Meeting in their collaborative groups, they used colored highlighters to mark and label the structure of their latest drafts: opening strategies, thesis statements, topic sentences, examples. The streaks of color—or their absence—helped group members identify and solve problems with organization and development.
In addition, each student was required to bring a marked-up checklist to the workshop to certify that mechanics—commas, capital letters, spelling, and homonyms—were correct. When problems arose, group members could help one another—or seek me out if more information is needed. Most important, students read their drafts aloud so that group members could provide the supportive audience so important to college writers.
I provided more support by visiting the groups to read students’ drafts without pointing out errors: Students needed to see that I was interested in their ideas. Still another helpful strategy was asking students to describe their writing practices and assess their own work. When students can identify their own strengths and solve their own problems, they have taken a giant step on the way to successful writing.
Correctness and Competence
Prevention is usually the best approach to usage and mechanics issues. Many students arrive at college with a hopeless jumble of misleading (and often wrong) rules: “Use a comma when you come to a new idea.” “Use a comma when you pause.” “Always use a comma with although, and, because, and but.” With mixed-up “rules” like these resounding in their brains, it’s hardly surprising that some students simply stop trying to understand grammar—another example of the “split archetype” of wise teacher/unknowing student.
With persistence and patience, students and teachers can work together to clear away this confusion. When students had trouble with commas, I asked them to photocopy their essays and get out their highlighters.
Highlighting the beginning of each sentence, along with every and and but, can be immensely helpful with comma placement. Students looked for every sentence that begins with an introductory idea and every pair of sentences joined by and or but. I also had my students practice reading sentences aloud and listening for interrupters. Soon they developed confidence with punctuation.
The usage checklists I mentioned earlier added more accountability. If I spotted a mistake when I’m reading a student essay at home, I had the option of highlighting it on the checklist or asking the writer to find it without help from me. What I tried to avoid was marking or fixing mistakes in mechanics. I once watched an English instructor circle the word “hungar” more than fifty times in a student essay about Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist”: It was a waste of time and effort that robbed the writer of responsibility for his work. I would have stopped reading at the first misspelling and handed it back.
Fortunately collaborative groups often create their own work ethic, even in basic writing classes, so that I could usually serve as a resource and a facilitator. But when a draft with major problems found its way to my worktable, I became a person to be reckoned with.
I usually took the author aside and ask for a description of his or her working process. Woe betide the student who gave me a vague explanation: “I had some long sentences, so I figured I needed a lot of commas,” or “I wasn’t sure how to put this together, so I just sort of wrote down some stuff.” Or—worst of all—“I waited until the last minute to write this, and I didn’t have time to go over it.”
Because many students had trouble with the transition from dependence to competence, I was flexible about revisions and grades during the early weeks in a semester. The ultimate goal never changed, however: Ownership of quality issues had to be transferred from me to my students.
Power to the People
We English teachers need to be liberated from the oppressive burden of paperwork we have carried for too long. For years I struggled with what I now realize was an impossible task: teaching writing via lengthy personal correspondence with students whose numbers often exceeded one hundred per semester. I was often exhausted, especially when my students showed their lack of appreciation by misplacing, misconstruing, or simply ignoring my suggestions. When I began focusing on empowering students instead of doing their work for them, I was happier and saner, and my students started writing better.
But my concerns go beyond the problems of dependent students and overworked teachers. Everything that occurs within the framework of our classes—what Jane Tompkins calls “the politics of the classroom” (660)—can have far-reaching impact. Linguistic instruction involves much more than merely imparting of skills and information: To change students’ language is, in the end, to change their lives.
It is a scary proposition for teachers who fear that high standards and accountability will damage students’ self-esteem, corrupt their natural language, and destroy their sense of self. But these are risks that must be faced if our students are to take responsible roles in their careers and their communities. Wendell Johnson says, “Effective writing is a human necessity in anything resembling a democratic culture, and this becomes increasingly true as the culture becomes increasingly complex” (110).
We English teachers have no choice in the matter anyway: Language will do its transformative work regardless of our personalities, instructional methods, or philosophies. Time and again I have encountered former basic writing students who, degrees in hand, had metamorphosed into articulate and fascinating people.
These dramatic changes were wrought not by my late-night ministrations of red ink, but by the words these students heard and practiced daily, semester after semester, in their college programs. (As evidence that language reshapes our thinking, I offer this prediction: The ideas in this article—whether you agree with them or not—will make your next set of student papers look different to you.)
Teachers who worry about language power trips are right: The outcomes of linguistic growth can be as profound and irrevocable as a spiritual regimen in an ashram. (For a perceptive examination of these consequences—both positive and negative, personal and societal—see Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Teachers dealing with these issues in their classrooms can find many sensitive and practical suggestions in Peter Elbow’s article “Inviting the Mother Tongue.”)
We English teachers need to celebrate these consequences, not fear them. Recognizing the formidable power of language is the best antidote to our anxieties about imposing an alien voice, dialect, or identity on our students. Rebirth—for better or worse, desired or dreaded—is not ours to give or withhold: It is always potentially present when we express ourselves through words. Helping students discover that power is one of our greatest challenges—and the most important reason for us to keep reading and responding to their writing.
Briggs, Lynn, and Ann Watts Pailliotet,” A Story about Grammar and Power,” The Journal of Basic Writing, 16 (1997): 48 – 61.
Brock Dethier, The Composition Instructor’s Survival Guide. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1999.
Elbow, Peter. “Inviting the Mother Tongue: Beyond ‘Mistakes,’ ‘Bad English,’ and ‘Wrong Language.’” JAC 19 (1999): 359 – 88.
Guggenbühl-Craig, Adolf. Power in the Helping Professions. Woodstock, Connecticut: Spring Publications, 1999.
Hafer, Gary R. Embracing Writing: Ways to Teach Reluctant Writers in Any College Course. Hoboken: Jossey-Bass, 2014.
Hawkins, Peter and Robin Shohet. Supervision in the Helping Professions. New York: Open University Press, 2012.
Holt, John. Freedom and Beyond. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1972.
Horvath, Brooke K. ” The Components of Written Response: A Practical Synthesis of Current Views.” The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook. 4th ed. Ed. Edward P.J. Corbett et al., New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 243-57.
Johnson, Wendell. “You Can’t Write Writing.” Language, Meaning and Maturity. Ed. S.I. Hayakawa, New York, Harper & Row: 1954, 100 – 11.
Shaw, Bernard. Pygmalion. Collected Plays with Their Prefaces. Ed. Dan H. Laurence. London: Reinhardt, 1970-74.
Tompkins, Jane. “Pedagogy of the Distressed.” College English, 52 (1990): 653-60.
Vaughan, Susan C., M.D. The Talking Cure. New York: Harper & Row, 1997.